Born in 1982, Dr Elisa Espinet graduated in Chemistry from the University of Valladolid in 2005 and did her PhD at IRB Barcelona (awarded in 2011).
After completing her PhD under the supervision of Dr Eduard Batlle, she spent nine years in Germany: the first seven years at the DKFZ German Cancer Research Institute and then just over two and a half years at the Heidelberg Institute for Stem Cell Technology and Experimental Medicine (HI-STEM gGmbH).
She has recently moved back to Barcelona after being awarded a Ramón y Cajal contract to take up a Group Leader position at the University of Barcelona—a position affiliated with Principal Investigator status at IDIBELL. She is based at the Bellvitge Campus.
“I have transferred my knowledge of colorectal cancer gained at IRB Barcelona to the field of pancreatic cancer”
How did a chemist get into the field of biomedicine?
I wanted to do a Biochemistry degree, but back in those days, you had to start a degree in Chemistry, Medicine, or Biology, for example, and then change to Biochemistry in the third and fourth years. I opted for a Chemistry degree because I thought it would be the most complicated part.
But when I got to the third and fourth years, I decided to stick with Chemistry, as they were the coolest years, because there was a lot of lab work and it was fun. But in the back of my mind, I always wanted to switch to “bio”.
During the final year of my degree, I did a summer placement with Dr Carmen García at IBGM (Instituto de Biología y Genética Molecular) in Valladolid. It was the first time I’d worked in a real biology laboratory and it was a great experience.
Why did you choose IRB Barcelona for your PhD?
When I finished that summer placement, I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD in a bio-related field. Around that time, I went to a SEBMM congress (Spanish Association of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology), organised by Dr. Joan Guinovart. I got talking to him and he told me about some fellowships being offered by the Barcelona Science Park. This was the first fellowship call back in 2005.
Dr. María Macías organised that call. I didn’t know which way to turn so I asked for interviews with various Group Leaders, but I simply didn’t get the feeling. As I was leaving, María called me over and introduced me to Dr. Eduard Batlle and Dr. Elena Sancho, who were just starting the Colorectal Cancer Lab.
I talked to Elena, who was offering the fellowship. She explained the project and I was thrilled. She later said she gave me the fellowship because, in her words, “I asked the right questions”. I’ve no idea what I asked but I must have got them right! I was her first PhD student. In fact, I was lucky because there was a student from Canada in line for that fellowship but, fortunately for me, he couldn’t come that year so I got his place and he joined the group the following year.
After nine years in Germany, what has brought you back to Barcelona?
I don’t think I'd ever given much thought to setting up my own group. I got into my line of research because I enjoy it and it is addictive. I realised I’d been acting as a Group Leader for several years… I’d been writing projects and applying for funding, managing the lab…working away from the bench. The head of my lab never clipped my wings, and I am grateful for that. So this transition to Group Leader position was a natural move for me.
I always wanted to return to Spain. It wasn’t a work-based decision as the employment situation is better in Germany. My decision was more emotionally driven. So the award of a Ramon y Cajal contract to take up a Group Leader position at the University of Barcelona and Principal Investigator position at IDIBELL has allowed me to return. It’s been a long journey, but I’m delighted to be back.
What makes Barcelona special?
There are few biomedical hubs like Barcelona. Someone once told me that Barcelona is like a massive institute because if you don’t have the machine/ technique you need, someone else will. And this is unique.
What will be name of your new lab?
Cell Identity and Tumor-Stroma Crosstalks in Pancreatic Cancer Lab.
Tell us about pancreatic cancer.
Pancreatic cancer is the deadliest type of cancer. Advances are being made, but while 5-year survival rates in other types of cancer are increasing, these rates for pancreatic cancer are lagging very much behind. One of the problems is that there hasn’t been enough funding. This lack of funding is connected to pancreatic cancer being less prevalent than other types of cancer and historically because of poor prognosis.
The low survival rates are because this type of cancer is diagnosed very late, and most patients present metastases, or the tumour is so large it cannot be surgically removed.
The problem is there are no early warning signs for pancreatic cancer, and when they do start to show, it’s too late. Moreover, there’s no effective treatment yet. Only a small percentage of people can have surgery and of these 90% relapse. So treatment is mostly palliative. We don’t know as much about this type of cancer as other types like breast and colon cancer.
We’re getting there though. Clinical trials are underway to undertake tumour profiling so that personalised medicine for subgroups of patients can be administered. This has already happened for other types of cancer.
I’m optimistic about the advances being made in the field and I hope the work produced by my new group contributes to furthering our understanding of this type of cancer so that we can find better treatment options for patients.
As the Group Leader of a new research group, what is next on your list of things to do?
The first thing you need to start your own group is money and personnel (of course you also need these to keep the lab running, but this will be the next step).
I recently got my first grants as an independent Group Leader and hired the first members of the lab. They are very motivated and are creating a great atmosphere in the lab. I feel very fortunate. Our next goal is to generate the first data to test our initial hypotheses and then let the ideas flow.
Would you like to share some reflections about your time in Germany?
I didn’t expect the culture shock to be as big as it was, after all, Germany is not that far away. But there are many small things that make daily life different. Another thing that surprised me is that lots of things people say about Germans are classical stereotypes and the reality is another story. For example, it’ll surprise you to hear that trains are late there, but nobody talks about that outside Germany.
In fact, the trains work better here than over there! I think we (Spaniards) should project the best of our country onto others. In Spain, we should take more pride in what we’ve achieved and should shy away from the stereotypes associated with our country. Germans openly tell the world what they are good at and that is why the word “German” is associated with positive characteristics (precision, efficacy, high performance, excellence…). Pride is a socially accepted trait there. But here in Spain we’re modest about our achievements and it’s not socially acceptable to boast, and this doesn’t help project what we’re really about and what Spain is today.
You mentioned visiting IRB Barcelona during your nine years in Germany. What impression did you get?
It’s changed so much since I was a PhD student when the institute was starting up. It was so small back then. There wasn’t even a Cancer Programme! Another thing is witnessing Eduard’s career blossom. When I started in the lab with Elena and Eduard there were only two students and one technician and Eduard was not the Eduard Batlle of today. I mean, he was, but he was not as known as nowadays. When I tell people that I did my PhD under Eduard Batlle, there is now an instant recognition of his name…these days everyone has heard of of the lab and knows about the work being done there. It is a very nice feeling knowing to have been part of the stepping stone.
Another thing about IRB Barcelona is the core facilities. In Germany, there are many PIs often have their own specialised equipment and there is little need for sharing. My experience at IRB Barcelona was one of sharing and cross-fertilisation, and I think this culture enriches the scientific community.
What advice would you give to our current PhD students?
Do what you truly enjoy. It’s really important to get a kick out of what you do.
I have to make a reflection on something I’ve seen in Germany and that others tell me is happening around the world…it must be a generational thing. PhD students and even undergraduates are already stressing about the future, employment instability, and publications, etc.
The most enjoyable time as a PhD student was when I was just focused on doing my experiments and answering the questions I had.
Importantly, this was not only the most enjoyable time but also the most productive one. As a student, you need to learn, create, discover, and grow (as a scientist but you will also grow at many other levels). This is what is really under your control. If you do that right you will get a nice next step no matter if you stay in academia or move to another position. So, breathe, go for it, and enjoy the journey!
About IRB Barcelona
The Institute for Research in Biomedicine (IRB Barcelona) pursues a society free of disease. To this end, it conducts multidisciplinary research of excellence to offer pioneering solutions to unresolved medical needs in cancer and other diseases related to ageing. It establishes technology transfer agreements with the pharmaceutical industry and major hospitals to bring research results closer to society and organises a range of science outreach activities to engage the public in an open dialogue. IRB Barcelona is an international centre that hosts 400 employees and more than 30 nationalities. Recognised as a Severo Ochoa Centre of Excellence since 2011, IRB Barcelona is a CERCA centre and member of the Barcelona Institute of Science and Technology (BIST).